To view the official Rescate website – https://www.rescateanimalzooave.org/

The Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center can be visited easily on public transport from the Costa Rican cities of San Jose and Alajuela, and is just a 15 minute drive from San Jose International Airport. If you’d like to volunteer there it’s possible, there is a page on the website with all details.

Note; at the time of my visit the name of the centre was Rescate Animal Zoo Ave. I mention this because the reason for the change is an interesting one, and is explained within the article.

I enjoy visiting animal rescues when I travel, supporting them anyway I can. After any visit I always end the day satisfied, knowing that I’ve done something really worthwhile with my time. So having heard of Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center through a couple of friends I considered traveling back from my holiday on the Costa Rican Pacific coast a couple of nights before my flight home so I could check the place out. My only hesitation in making the decision to visit was due to the name of the place. Zooave? I’ve been to Zoo’s in many countries before and it’s almost always a horrific, sad experience. But I read a couple of articles online about Rescate and it seemed very far from a common zoo, and more like a very good example of an animal rescue centre, albeit with an odd name. So I got in touch, asked if I could visit with a view to writing an article about the place, and here we are. 

A staff member had arranged to meet me at the onsite restaurant and guide me around. I joined them at a table that seemed to be made out of an antique bird cage.

“I like the tables, I think,” I said, “what’s the story?”

“We have a yearly cage-crushing ceremony,” my guide explained, “the public is invited to bring bird cages to us, in fact, all cages that pets are kept in. We crush them all out there in the carpark during a party to which all local people are invited, and then we use the metal in community projects. These cages you see here we kept for use in the restaurant. I think they make a strong point, and also act as some sort of reminder, witnesses maybe, to the lives of the birds that spent time caged in them.”

I agreed, and the strong, unfiltered style of messaging appealed to me. In North America where I live, and in my native England, those working in animal care rarely state opinions as strongly as this in public. There are many reasons why this is so. Some believe in always meeting clearly irrational, selfish or childish thoughts halfway in an effort to appear fair minded. Others burrow angles around their own concept of truth because they want to be liked, funded, employed, or to gain personal advantage in other ways. And others just don’t believe that the public is educated enough to respond well to any sort of message that doesn’t promise economic advances and the satisfaction of the ego. Could I imagine any representative of a business that relies on donations, entry fees, and fundraising in my home countries having the clarity of self and confidence in the inherent goodness of their fellow humans to say in public,

“You absolutely shouldn’t cage birds. So bring us your cages, we’ll crush them, have a ceremony and a party, and then we’ll carry on with life in a more informed, mature, kinder way.”

I can’t imagine it, yet, but hopefully it will happen and eventually become the regular way of operating. I’m certainly glad that society here is more openly and genuinely empathetic than that where I come from though, so that humans somewhere are still encouraged to speak of and discuss moral truth as a main, actionable issue, rather than something that might be achieved after economics and shallow matters of the self are dealt with.

I believe that few people think it’s morally right to keep birds caged. They might like to do it (and in a few cases, such as pigeon fanciers, they may have a strong point regarding the matter) but I don’t believe anybody actually thinks it’s preferable to a bird being free. This contradiction highlights an age old battle that religions and philosophies often try to deal with, the battle between the deeper self and the more surface-based ego. Shall we act in a considered manner, or shall we get sucked in by the baubles. In a way, the pet trade offers us a debating ground on which we might improve ourselves. The more beautiful the bird, the stronger the urge is for some of us to keep it caged, and I can certainly identify with this urge. But the years have shown me that if you free the bird, by not engaging in keeping pets or supporting the pet trade in the first place, then you go some way to freeing yourself from the selfish whims of your ego.

As we walked towards the first of the animal enclosures my next question was, why is this place called ‘Zooave’? Isn’t that sort of name guaranteed to put a lot of tourists off? 

“It’s a good point, we’ve struggled with deciding what to do about this in the past,” my guide said. “It’s our original name, from the 1960’s, and it’s what local people know us by. This place was in fact a regular zoo in those days. We changed to being a rescue centre in the 1990’s but we kept the old name. ‘Going to the zoo’ is something that local people understand culturally, and we weren’t sure how people would respond if the idea changed from ‘let’s go to the zoo’ to ‘let’s go to the animal rescue centre’. And since 85% of our business comes from locals, we had to consider this. But we’ve decided to change the name now to better reflect what we do, and our new name is Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center. We are hoping to have the new website and re-branding ready by the spring of 2020.”

“It must be tricky to decide on the wording of a name,” I said, “I know there are various activities you can and can’t do here in Costa Rica regarding wildlife, according to how you describe yourself legally.”

What I was referring to was the Wildlife Conservation Law of 2013 that defined the difference between zoos and animal rescue centres in Costa Rica. Zoos can be nonprofit or for-profit and are allowed to publicly display animals that cannot be released, and to conduct environmental education programs. Animal rescue centers must only be nonprofit, must rehabilitate and release animals, and must be closed to the public.

“Yes, it has been, and we have 2 parts to our operation, so Rescate Wildlife Rescue Center is legally registered as a wildlife rescue center and a sanctuary. The area that is open to the public is the ‘sanctuary’ – the actual term in the wildlife regulations that accompany the law is ‘zoo type sanctuary’ – and it houses over 800 non-releasable animals. Sanctuaries are allowed to be open to the public. The rescue center itself – the part we will soon visit,  behind the scenes, which takes up the majority area of our centre – is closed to the public.”

To expand on the lawful definitions briefly, in Costa Rica a zoo is a managed site where wildlife is kept in captivity, whether or not for commercial purposes, under the direction of a corps of professionals that ensures adequate living conditions in an attractive and didactic manner for the public. Its main objectives are the scientific conservation, education, research and display of wild fauna.

And a rescue center is a managed site which aims to rehabilitate wildlife that has been rescued, seized or surrendered voluntarily for the purpose of their recovery and reintegration into their natural environment whenever possible. The sites are non-profit and closed to the public.

There are well over 200 animal rescue centres in Costa Rica and almost every one of them is open to the public, which on the surface of it sounds like an incredibly widespread flouting of the law. Not all of them are just using the animals to make money though, and an expert I know suggested that perhaps 7 or 8 are really trying to do the right thing by the animals. And you have to have some sympathy for many of the others.

Imagine, you find a baby sloth on the ground. It has a deformity that means it can’t cling to a tree. It fell from it’s mother earlier that day, the mother has moved away and won’t come back (this is common behavior among sloth mothers, they want to be free of their babies quickly), and now it’s at the mercy of predators on the ground. This is a relatively common occurrence in areas were pesticides are heavily used on fruit plantations. Costa Rica is the number 1 user of pesticides of any country in the world, and local wildlife is heavily affected by this (as are local people who work on the plantations). So you find this baby sloth, there is nobody around who knows how to take care of it. You decide to try your best to help, and the sloth survives. Local villagers hear of your success and then, when they next find an animal in distress, they bring it to you to care for it. And so an animal rescue centre is born. But you need money to keep it going so you charge people to come take a look at what you’re doing. Only, this isn’t legal, you’re expected to foot the bill yourself somehow. So you apply for funding here and there but you’re not a professional fundraiser and don’t know the terminology that those folks demand you speak, and anyway, the time spent on fundraising is time you’re not taking care of the animals and your own family. You could get a professional fundraiser but you can’t afford to pay them, and a foreign intern might help open up a revenue source, but how do you get a reliable one? You can see, being kind to animals comes with a host of issues if you’re not super rich.

“There are so many wildlife recuse centres in Costa Rica now, it’s difficult for tourists to know what to support and what not to support,” I asked my guide. “Have you any tips to help us choose?”

“Looking at the photos on the website, or in the brochure or promotional material, can give you an indication. If they suggest that you can cuddle the animals, get very close to them, or even have selfies taken with them, usually sloths, birds or monkeys, then it’s not the sort of place you should be supporting.”

We passed an installation that emphasised the problem with animal selfies. There was a toy sloth hanging and a sign saying ‘This sloth love selfies, a real one does not’. #stopanimalselfies

“This is our initiative, and we’ve put installations like this at the airport, and other places that tourists frequent,” my guide explained. “Animals get stressed out if they’re hung around humans necks or put on their shoulders, and there’s also the possibility of passing on diseases, from human to animal, and from animal to human. Many animals are also captured as babies purely to be put on show at some places that call themselves animal rescues but which are really just restaurants or gift shops with a sideshow, and to capture a baby animal means that the mothers are often beaten to death, or shot. We want to spread this ‘no selfie’ message, so people know what they are supporting if they choose to get a photo taken with an animal at one of these centres.” 

We’d arrived at the first enclosure. A large crocodile had its mouth wide open on the other side of a pond. When she heard us talking she closed her mouth and turned towards us.

“She was taken from people who were keeping her illegally,” my guide explained, “But we can’t release her into the wild, she likes humans a lot. I think that her owners treated her well, or maybe fed her by hand, because now whenever she hears human voices she moves towards the sound. Can you imagine what would happen if we set her free? She might hear people playing in the river, or washing clothes, and move towards them, they wouldn’t know she was friendly, they’d probably throw rocks at her, or shoot her. It’s just not safe for her to be set free. It’s better she stays here, has a quiet life. Here she can act as an education tool, our guides tell guests about her. Often people don’t understand why we can’t allow animals to be released, or the importance of keeping distance between humans and wild animals. It can be complicated at times. Her story helps people to understand the importance of not keeping wild animals as pets.”

In the next enclosure were 2 caimans. They had running water, a pond, and some space to move away from humans if they wanted to.

“These were rescued from a dealer,” my guide explained, “they were bred to provide leather, and meat. Here we have a similar issue to the crocodile next door, they don’t know to fear humans.” 

Later I was to learn how many animals can be rehabilitated yet here I could see that with crocodiles, or any animal that is both a potentially fierce predator and one that humans are naturally fearful of, then rehabilitation would be terribly hard if not impossible. How do you teach a crocodile not to trust humans and not to come too close? You could find a place where humans don’t go and place them there, but crocodiles travel, and even if they didn’t how many places are there these days where people don’t live? There may be better answers than keeping the animals here but whilst the hunt it on for them, this sort of enclosure is a good holding point.

Next came the turtles. 

“There was a craze for importing turtles into Costa Rica from the USA, it’s illegal to import them now but still we find them being released by their owners and altering the local water habitats.” My guide was talking about the Red Eared Slider Turtle. It’s been the most popular turtle in the pet trade with more than 52 million individuals exported from the United States to foreign markets between 1989 and 1997. Little is known of their impact on native ecosystems although their omnivorous diet and ability to adapt to various habitats gives them great potential for impacting indigenous habitats. The species has been nominated as among 100 of the ‘World’s Worst’ invaders, to learn more about this species, check here – https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/61560

The turtles illustrated another problem; they’re healthy but release into the wild here isn’t an option as they shouldn’t be here and are potentially harmful for indigenous wildlife, and people. Short of shipping them back to the States, and there are hundreds of thousands of them needing to go, what else can be done but keep them in enclosures like this?

The main lesson here is to boycott the exotic pet trade. And to do our best to get those who indulge in it to upgrade their views and stop.

The raptor enclosures came next. They were tall cages, for a reason.

“The birds get unsettled if they’re at eye level with humans, they need to be up high to cut down on stress levels,” my guide explained. “It’s difficult to see them at times and that can be a problem with our paying guests. Often people come here expecting a close experience with the animals yet for the animals own well-being this only happens if the animals want it to. They always need space where they can get away from being with people if they wish. You’ll notice in all our enclosures the animals have space to be on their own, away from humans. Sometimes our visitors complain, sometimes they can’t see an animal closely, or at all, but this is how it has to be. We’ve tried to address these concerns of our guests in another way, you’ll see how later when you visit the farm animals. There we’ve made it so that kids, well, anyone really, can get close to animals that don’t mind the contact, like horses, donkeys and pigs.”

“Can these birds ever be released?” I asked.

“These ones, no, we will see others later that are on the way to being. But these birds of prey, no. They’ve suffered various injuries that prevent it. For instance, this one here had a broken wing. We’ve fixed it but it’ll never be what it was. Imagine, it’s hunting, it’s chasing a rat, it has to swoop this way and that very quickly. But with a faulty wing it can’t do that. It simply won’t be able to hunt, it won’t be able to eat. It’ll starve.”

Walking past a spacey enclosure a black animal appeared that looked like a mix between an English badger and a stoat, except it had webbed feet. The signage said it was a Greater Grison, and that little was known of the species. I’d certainly not heard of it during my 4 nature viewing trips to Costa Rica.

My guide opened a gate and invited me through.

“The public isn’t allowed in here. This is our rehabilitation centre. Seeing it will help explain something of what we do, and why.”

To the right of a corridor were windows. We could look through them into enclosures and intensive care units but there was a coating on the other side of them that meant the animals inside couldn’t see us.

Looking back from an enclosure, seeing the animals view of the corridor windows.

“We don’t want the wild animals getting used to seeing or being around humans, or being stressed by our presence. The public can’t come here but still, there are volunteers, vets, and workers who sometimes pass. These window coatings are just one of the methods we use to minimize contact.

You can also see here, in this unit, that on either side are smaller cages that can be moved between the shelter and the outdoors via a mechanism operated remotely. It means that when birds need to transition slowly from rehab to the outside world, they can be in these cages and be moved between indoors and outdoors for a few hours each day whilst they get used to being outside again, without seeing people.”

There were several other intensive care units we could see into, each looked like a mini hospital. Why were there so many, I asked? I haven’t seen this at other rescue centres I’d visited, they usually only have one.

“We need to keep the species apart. If you keep an injured baby monkey in the same room as an injured baby ocelot, several disastrous things will probably occur. The monkey may start to think of the ocelot as friendly, so when they are released they don’t run from ocelots when they should. The ocelot can start to think of the monkey or other animals as friendly and then won’t hunt them when it is released, and then it’ll starve…”

“You mean the ocelot will not hunt at all? It won’t just hunt something other than what it usually does? Or eat fruit, or something like that?”

“No,” my guide said, “it’s been studied. When an ocelot loses that ability to see the monkey or other small animals as prey it won’t change it’s diet, it’ll starve. So it’s essential we keep predators and prey apart. This unit is for monkeys, that’s for cats, that one is for birds, and this one on the end is a medical unit, you can see a sloth being hand fed by one of our nurses at the moment.”

“Won’t this hand feeding, this close contact with a human, affect the sloth when it’s released?”

“No, the sloth is different from other animals,” my guide smiled, “it’s naturally a solitary creature and it retains that quality no matter what happens to it. Studies show that once you release them they’re gone without looking back. They like to keep their space from all others, animals or human.”

Beyond the units was a circular enclosure and 2 more bird enclosures, all out of view of the public. They were used to house animals at various stages of their rehabilitation. On the other side of the corridor were yet more areas. 

“There are various stages birds go through between arriving here and being released, according to their species,” my guide explained. “For instance, a bird that’s usually part of a flock, if they’re taken from a flock and kept as a pet or even if they’re bred in captivity, they’ll have to show us that they’re ready to rejoin a flock in order to be released. It’s kind of like they have to graduate from ‘bird school’. They have to show that they can be part of a flock so they can survive in the wild. So when we first get them we keep them in quarantine for a time, up to 2 months, to check they’re free of disease that could harm other birds. Once that’s over we put them in with others of their kind. If they show that they can be part of the flock then they graduate to the next stage but if not, they stay behind and join the next group that’s coming through. Some birds take 2 or 3 classes to join the flock, but all eventually do.”

“And what’s the next stage, after they join the flock?”

“We have various styles of release, but it could look like this. We take them to a remote, safe, forested area and keep them in a large enclosure. We release one or two at a time, usually the least confident birds go first. Imagine, if we released the confident birds at first they’d fly off into the jungle and leave the others. So we release the least confident first. They hang around the cage even though they’re free, and the bonds between all birds continue to grow. There’s food available inside and outside of the enclosure so they can eat if they’re nervous about flying off into the forest to get food…”

“Why would they do that? If food was easily available at the cage, why move away?”

“Because the food we provide them is adequate, but it’s not as tasty as that which they can get naturally in the forest!” 

It was just one more thing that made perfect sense but which I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. One of the most important lessons of the day for me was not to have any more uninformed reaction to situations I didn’t know much about. It’s common for animal lovers to want all animals to be free, now, and to believe that anybody who keeps animals in cages is wrong. Our passion guides us, and blinds us. But this is unwise. Our passion should guide our reason. If we’re actually interested in animal welfare as much as we say we are then we must take our time to study the science, and best current methods of care, and get our information from peer reviewed journals and experienced people working in the field rather than social media outrage. I shall certainly try to adjust my own actions regarding this in the future.

“So once the less confident birds have got used to being outside we let one or two more out. If birds have paired off, we only let one of them out. Same reasoning as with the more confident birds, if we let a pair out they may just fly off on their own together. This process may take months. The last birds to be released are the most confident and by then, the other birds are nicely formed into a flock – which is how they act naturally, it protects them in many ways – and they’ve also had time to learn where the natural food sources are in the local area so eventually they just fly off on their own. And with a few changes, we follow a similar course with other animals. They get released but we provide an adequate, if not super tasty, food source for them whilst they get used to finding their way in the new surroundings. For some animals it can take years to safely reintegrate.”

We left the rescue centre and re-entered the pubic zone. We passed an enclosure where a one armed monkey was climbing a tree (“he copes very well. Obviously can’t go free, he would struggle fending for himself, but he seems happy here,”) and stopped beside a toucan.

“This is Grecia, you may have heard of her,” my guide said. I had. Grecia’s case had become famous worldwide a few years ago. Tortured and beaten by a gang of local youths who’d hacked her beak off, she’d been near death when she’d arrived at the centre. The vets held out little hope for her yet as they discussed putting her to sleep she’d started to try to sing. They’d seen this as a sign that she had the will to live, so she was helped to recover from the shock and the injury, and after a fund raising drive a prosthetic 3D printed beak was created for her. 

Opposite her enclosure was a human size statue of her, as she looked with her beak hacked off. The message was powerful and honest. This is what some of us humans did to her. And now look, look how innocent she is, how she hops about on her branch so simply, hurting nobody. How cruel we are to treat animals as we do. Not just in this case, but in the packed cages of the animal agriculture farms, in the zoos, and sometimes in our homes. How much better we must be to be worthy of ourselves and nature! 

Here are a couple of links to learn more about Grecia https://ticotimes.net/2016/08/11/grecia-toucan-new-cage

https://www.goprint3d.co.uk/blog/the-remarkable-story-of-grecia-the-costa-rican-toucan/

Grecia using her new beak to preen her feathers.

My guide left me here, I wandered for the next few hours around the grounds. There was a zip line that offered another look at the centre so I signed up for that. We started above the white faced monkey enclosure, a huge area where the monkeys could be seen, but far away.

Here’s a view from the first zip line platform. 

Zip-line guides went before and after me as I whirred down the wire to the second platform. We were a respectful distance from the animals, I didn’t see any of them look up or act disturbed. To my right were the white faced monkeys, then down below was a bird enclosure. A toucan on the inside and a toucan on the outside were talking to each other. Overhead circled several vultures. Then we were gliding over the sloths. It’s tricky to see sloths at the best of times in the wild and here it was the same. They don’t move much so what you generally see is a bundle of fur and perhaps some claws. Still, it was interesting to see them from above and as with the other animals, they showed no sign of being bothered by our presence. On we went, over peacock, monkey, ostrich, giant tortoise and more, and then I was back out into the rescue centre exploring on foot.

Many animals were out of sight, it was 2pm and rather hot. Perhaps they were sheltering in the cool, or maybe they’d had enough of humans at the moment and had gone to their quiet places. Now I’d learned how they need their own space to feel safe I wasn’t annoyed at this. Rather, I was pleased that they had the option to chill out alone. I like to take photos of animals as much as anybody but Rescate helped me think about priorities, and other things, thanks to educational signs like these that lined the walkways between enclosures.

There is a local belief that sea turtle eggs help with male virility. It’s nonsense, but it’s ingrained. This sign basically says ‘my eggs are not the solution, if you need help use viagra instead.’ Great education. 

And this next sign was another level entirely. I love it when illustrators working on public art don’t feel compelled to speak down to the public and instead assume a level of knowledge and self reflection that allows them to offer complex, thought provoking messages such as this.

I understood the Spanish, I recognized the style of painting as that of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist famous for his fruit-faced portraits – and I saw how the wooden elements of our everyday furniture were replaced with bones. I think it was saying, the way we construct our lives is destroying us. We sit and admire nature on the walls in paintings, we are nature ourselves, yet we kill it, and therefore ourselves. Can we do better than this!?

Maybe it was saying that. I’m unsure. It was good art, in any case, offering plenty of stimulus for thought.

The spider monkeys were active. One stalked me as I walked past. It kept it’s eyes locked on mine and followed me as I walked first one way for 15 metres, then back, then back again. I’ve had a lot of experience in the wilds of Africa with animals I’ve encountered whilst on foot and I’m not usually spooked but the intensity of this monkey’s stare, and the controlled, electric ripple of it’s movements made me glad there was a barrier between us. It was clearly very powerful, without fear, and was sizing me up clinically with every movement. There was a deep growl, too. I recalled that my guide had said that male spider monkeys kept as pets were a huge problem, as they’re powerful enough to attack a human if they see food, and small groups of them have been known to kill people. In fact, the government has to send hunters out on occasion to track down spider monkeys in the wild that are way too used to humans. Some just become that way by chance, perhaps they encounter villagers daily, but others have been kept as pets and then released once they got too big or aggressive. These few monkeys in the enclosure were kept there for their own good, and for ours. 

This shows about a third of the spacious spider monkey enclosure.

I called in at the onsite restaurant – named ‘Kivu’ after the lion that had lived out the last of it’s days here in a large, private enclosure after having been kept in squalid conditions at the San Jose zoo – and ate from the excellent buffet. There was plenty of local favorites like rice and beans, plantains, sauces that were new to me made with mango, berries and other fruits, many types of salads, and soups. 

My final hour was spent in the bird section of the park. Here the larger and more colourful birds were settled. Many had their wings clipped, courtesy of their previous owners no doubt, but at least they now had their own perches in a pleasant setting and could move around as freely as was possible. 

Some had been bred especially for the pet trade and were beautifully, yet unnaturally, coloured. Being with the Scarlet Macaws was a bittersweet experience. I was obviously pleased to be close to them yet sad that they have to be here. I’d just spent a week in the Osa Peninsula and Carara National Park, the 2 places in Costa Rica where you can still find these birds regularly now. Seeing a flash of red overhead was always thrilling, and luckily I’d experienced it daily. I didn’t need them to be close for me to enjoy them, just to be in the same part of the world as them and catch a glimpse was enough. So to see them here was beautiful yet awful. They should be flying wild, not kept by us in any way. They used to be common all over the country but now there’s less than 2,000 in Osa and less than 500 in Carara. The good news is that Rescate has had tremendous success in breeding these birds and has a well established program to release captive bred birds in areas where they’re currently extinct. 

Having made 4 visits to Costa Rica and toured a dozen or so of the wildlife focused national parks, rescue centres and volunteer projects I’d say that Rescate is a must see for nature lovers. It’s accessible – all the paths are well paved – and also very easy to visit as it’s on a bus route. Please consider putting aside time at the start or end of your holiday to visit, and support, the centre. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your day and you might well learn a lot about the complex world of animal rescue and rehabilitation, as I did. 

To Visit

To view the official Rescate website – https://www.rescateanimalzooave.org/

There’s a large car park if you’re driving. There’s also a local bus, it’s the number 246 from Alajuela and you can find the schedule here (it’s basically every hour) https://moovitapp.com/index/en/public_transit-line-ALAJUELA_ATENAS-San_Jose-2967-858091-778447-0

I stayed at Hostel Cala in Alajuela, I booked it through booking.com It was good value and the staff helped me locate the bus station, which was a 10 minute walk from the hostel.